Teaching Giving

Damaris W. Maclean

The Nightingale-Bamford School


Recently I came across a flashy, geometric, clear, colorful plastic piggy bank divided into three equal sections labeled Spend, Save, and Give. It reminded me of the way my parents modeled giving for me and my brothers when we were children. No matter what else was happening in their finances, my parents always remembered their pledges and their commitments to give.

Now a parent myself and a teacher at this same school, I look at my own children and at my students and consider my obligation to pass on this commitment to supporting needs that extend far beyond our own. I’ve wondered whether the lesson about giving belongs at schools or to parents, but it has become clear that children look to the adults whom they trust to model moral behavior, including their teachers. My parents taught my brothers and me to give, quietly and by example. As teachers we must be more intentional, creating lesson plans and prioritizing them in our busy school schedules and calendars. We build on the modeling that parents present at home, giving it structure and context in the community of the school and the world. At school, we work to demystify giving by demonstrating its power to make a difference and therefore awakening our students to their potential to help others, both individually and, with greater impact, as a group.

As educators, we talk a lot about outcomes for our students. What qualities and skills will our graduates need to navigate a complicated and global world? We discuss innovation, collaboration, global competencies, and self-awareness. But what of the common good? What of their sense of place in their context? We believe that our students will be leaders in their fields, influential among their peers, but if they are too egocentric they may forget to speak with those whose voices are silenced, to stand with the unseen, to seek justice where it lacks, and above all to demand peace in the midst of violence. When we move and speak together, our actions have a greater impact, rippling out beyond our sight. This is where schools are essential in the lessons about giving.

In the school where I work, we have students from five to eighteen years old. Social and emotional learning goals have been hot words in our curriculum planning for several years. In the elementary years, students learn about sharing and “intentional acts of kindness.” This is a seed in our lessons for philanthropy. We know that our fourth graders are developmentally ready to work with servers in a soup kitchen, while also conducting a penny drive to support City Harvest. The joy is contagious when a child realizes that she can make a difference in someone’s day by smiling as she offers seconds on salad or roast beef. Placing in the top five schools for money collected for City Harvest is secondary to the discovery that efforts of the whole fourth grade yielded over $2,500 in coins and over 8,200 lbs. of food for their neighbors in New York City. 

These fourth graders know that giving through acts of kindness and through financial contributions makes a difference – and that it feels good. As they rise through our school their efforts become more sophisticated. They experiment with different ways to give within our community and throughout the world. We know that our graduates understand this because they give to our annual fund, they open foundations and start schools for the children they meet during their study abroad programs in college. They serve on boards for non-profits and work on legislation to remove systemic barriers that trap families in cycles of poverty.

Children love to help one another. Whether they start their journey of giving by receiving a small three-sectioned penny bank during the holidays or through a structured coin drive with their classmates, the joy of giving will last them a lifetime.